In its continuing campaign to take over every conceivable part of our lives, the maker of the iPhone, iPad, and iPod on Mondayunveiledthe Apple HomePod, the company’s first smart speaker.Naturally, this madegadget fiendspositively giddy. Does that meantheAmazon Echo and Google Homeshould be quaking infear?
No doubt, the HomePod-slated tobe available in December-is waaaaay late to thisparty. The Echo arrived in November 2014, and Google Home two years later. Plus,at $349, the HomePod is far pricier than the Echo ($180) or Google Home ($130).
Nonetheless, the HomePod hassome unique qualities that make it a contender. Apple’s loyal followers (or, as some call them, iSheep) are likely to line up and latch on, of course.But what about the rest of us? Let’s take a look.
The HomePod’s secret weapon: It’s actually a great speaker
Just like other smart speakers,the HomePod is powered by a voice assistant (everyone’s BFF, Siri), which will answer queries fromWhat’s the weather today? to What’s the meaning of life?
The speaker can can also talk to other Apple-compatible smart home accessories (like the August Smart Lock and the Ecobee3 Thermostat). It can learn your preferences; so if you say, Hey Siri, play something different, it will select a tune that mesheswith your tastes.
But what truly sets the HomePod apart is its superior sound quality.
The HomePod has the ability to adapt to wherever it’s playing, explains Mark Bradford, a technology consultant. It checks whether it’s a big room or a room with lots of soft stuff in it, and adjusts how it plays and in what direction.
The result? High-fidelity sound perfectly suited towhateverspace it’s in.In the words ofCEO Tim Cook, as he introduced the new device at Apple’sannual Worldwide Developers Conference in California,We want to reinvent home music.
As far as strengths go, Apple has certainly picked a weak spot with the Echo and Google Home, as neither has performed all that well in sound tests. AlthoughConsumer Reportssays itsengineers deemedthe sound quality on the Echo and Google Home similarly decent, when cranked to higher volumes it turneda bit thin, grainy, metallic, and processed sounding.
Or perhapsCNETput it best when comparing the two:Which one’s better? Well, let me put it this way: what’s your favorite kind of dental surgery? While neither speaker is outright awful, I wouldn’t buy either of them if sound quality was my primary aim.
Audiophiles will be excited, but they’ll have to wait
Granted, the verdicton whether the HomePod is the ultimate speaker won’t come until the massesactually get their hands on itin December. Yet in a preliminary demo at WWDC, a handful ofproduct reviewers got to heara sampling of five songs across four genres. Their verdict?
Engadget called the HomePod a killer speaker with aclear edge over the competition: If listening to the HomePod was like listening to a CD, then audio through the Echo sounded like AM radio. In my experience it’s excellent for audiobooks, but if given the choice, I’d rather have the HomePod pump out my jams.
Meanwhile, CNET declared that the HomePod’s audio was a lot better than Amazon Echo and alsobolder and more vivid than another high-end smart speaker on hand, the Sonos PLAY:3. However, the reviewerdid caution, a full review of the final product is the only way to determine any real meaningful thoughts on HomePod-as-home-audio-device. But, right out of the gate, Apple is clearly going for music over smart assistance as HomePod’s major draw.
And that could work-not only for Apple fans, but audiophiles as well.
Audiophiles are a passionate group of consumers,points outEric Murrell at At Home in the Future. I believe Apple made the right call in positioning the HomePod as an audio-first device.
Howthe HomePod falls short
Nonetheless, the HomePod’s price andclosed platform couldlimit its popularity.
It will not beat Alexa as far as numbers go, saysGregg Steiner, a technology expert and owner of Automated Home Living. Amazon’s openness and incredibly affordable price make it much more usable by the masses. Amazon is being embedded in all types of products such as thermostats and cars. Apple’s closed-off garden approach will limit their success.
Bradford also points out that thesound quality of the HomePod mightnot beallthatdifferent fromother high-quality Wi-Fi speakers already on the market, like the Sonos.
You can buy an Echo Dot for less than $50 and pair it with anexpensive speaker with amazing sound, says Bradford. Apple would argue that your expensive speaker can’t analyze the room, and I’d argue that most people wouldn’t notice.
Ultimately, it couldcome down to whether the HomePod will be able tooffer the best of both worlds-crisp sound quality and smart voice command-in a single device. But Apple’shistory suggeststhat the odds are good itcan make that happen.
Apple revolutionized how we consume music with iTunes, says Bradford. They organized it in such a way that made you happily purchase it and want to get more. If they can figure out a way to make the experience revolutionary again, using only your voice, perhaps they will have something again.
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